Joining the Australian Army as an apprentice musician at 16, Geoff Grey CSM never imagined completing a PhD in his lifetime – until the opportunity to combine his passion for music and his military career presented itself.
Geoff Grey has achieved a lot in his career, which spans four decades and counting: an ARIA Gold record with the Australian Army Band Sydney; recording national anthems played at medal ceremonies for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games; being the Music Director for Queen Elizabeth II’s last two visits to Australia on behalf of the Federal Government; obtaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, the highest rank possible for a musician; being awarded a Conspicuous Service Medal (CSM) in 1998; and multiple deployments overseas to play to soldiers.
But it is his work as Artistic Director of the Australian Defence Force Arts for Recovery, Resilience, Teamwork and Skills (ARRTS) program, and complementing PhD at the University of Canberra, that will certainly feature in his legacy.
It was Geoff’s experience of playing music to troops overseas that first made him aware of the potential creative engagement has for deployed forces.
“It's really great for deployed personnel to have a creative outlet – to be able to not just watch, but also to be a part of something like that – and it also reminds them that the country cares about its troops because we’re being sent to entertain, uplift and connect with our fellow soldiers through music,” he says.
He says going into a war zone as a musician is a profound experience.
“Even though you have the same common training as fighting soldiers – you have to do the same basic and promotional training – your advanced training is in music, and theirs is in weapons systems and such.
"There is something quite profoundly moving about being able to assist your fellow uniformed personnel in giving them a lift.”
In 2013 and 2014, Geoff worked on The Long Way Home, a production by the Sydney Theatre Company in collaboration with the Australian Defence Force. The play reflected on service personnel’s experiences and was based on firsthand accounts. The show involved service members performing alongside professional actors as part of a broader rehabilitation program.
“It was a groundbreaking play that was distinctly Australian in its production. I got myself on staff for the show because I anticipated there would be support for it to continue in some way, and I wanted to be ‘on the ground’ when that happened – which it did,” he says.
Geoff helped shape the development of the Arts for Recovery, Resilience, Teamwork and Skills or ARRTS program, becoming the program’s first (and current) Artistic Director.
ADF ARRTS is a four-week residential program that aims to build the confidence and resilience of current ADF, ACT Emergency Services, and Australian Federal Police personnel, and former personnel who have transitioned to civilian life in the last three years.
There are three creative streams for participants to choose a focus: visual arts, music and rhythm, and creative writing. Creative professionals within each stream, such as Geoff, provide training and mentorship for the participants. The program has run twice yearly since 2015, at UC’s Bruce campus.
The ADF ARRTS program is not art or music therapy – clinical assessments and judgement are involved in these therapies. They help a therapist understand why a client behaves a certain way or does a certain thing, and how art or music can assist someone to walk, talk, or complete other functions.
Geoff says the concept for the ARRTS program was founded upon the belief that putting participants in a non-clinical setting would help them realise they are not broken and don’t need to be ‘fixed’ with therapy.
“For the ARRTS program, the core foundation is that it is not judgemental. We're providing an opportunity for wounded, injured and ill Defence Force personnel to try their hand at creative engagement for a month-long residential program with no report at the end, no pass/fail, so there is no pressure on them.”
Geoff says that knowledge within the military about non-clinical creative engagement was limited when the program was first proposed, so while it could be piloted and tested, research was essential to understanding its benefits and impact, both immediate and in the long-term.
So, in 2017, he was offered the opportunity to complete a qualitative PhD at UC to understand the benefits of the program through the participants’ own words, which complemented a quantitative PhD being undertaken at the University of New South Wales. It would be just his second university-level qualification, with a graduate diploma awarded to acknowledge prior learning qualifying him for the PhD.
“The PhD journey was not easy for me – I had to learn a language and discipline that was different to what I do as an artist and performing musician. But the process of understanding the academy has made me a significantly deeper thinker.
“I already knew how to do my job and I knew how to do it at the highest level. So, to challenge myself, at my age, by doing something from a very different angle was really exciting. The PhD process was an exceptionally rewarding challenge for me that – perhaps ironically – taught me a lot more about my own ideals for the ADF ARRTS program than I thought it would,” he says.
Geoff’s thesis was a case study involving cohorts from the first three years of the program, from which 85 per cent of respondents said they were still doing creative engagement for their own well-being. A sense of identity and self-confidence were the most commonly-reported benefits.
“When you're in the military, it's really easy to believe that the uniform is your identity. When you leave the military – by choice or not – it can seem like the most devastating thing on the planet, like you’re losing yourself. My goal for people in this program is that they walk away feeling self-confident and with the belief that they can be anything or anyone they want to be.
“Through the research, we also found out that the program is hugely beneficial to people who are transitioning to a civilian life and career, which we hadn't really forecast before we started this,” he says.
ARRTS participants are not required to share their work, but Geoff says they all tend to do so by the end of the program. Seeing participants’ progress – from feeling reserved at the start, to freely sharing their art, written piece, or musical performance by the end – has been a highlight for Geoff working in the program.
Geoff continues his role as the Artistic Director of the ARRTS program, which will commence again at UC in October, and is exploring opportunities for creative engagement to be more available for serving personnel while they are at training and on deployment. He is also the Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Australian Wind Symphony.
Geoff graduated out of session in mid-2023.
Words by Kailey Tonini, photos supplied.
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Many of you have already made such an impact in your fields and in your communities; many more will go on to do so.
We wish you the best and look forward to your amazing future journeys.